Mark 9:2-9

The transfiguration has always felt a little bit odd to me. It’s a story so richly packed with imagery and allusions – the archetypal mountaintop experience, the figures from the history of the people of Israel, the clothes dazzling white, the cloud, the voice – that even as we enter into the story we are left with this sense that there is so much more to it than we have seen.

When I read the story, I’m drawn to start with the end, with the punchline: “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him”.

You recognise those words? Remember where else you’ve heard them? Those were the words of God at the baptism of Jesus, right at the start of his ministry. And now, as he starts to move into the final phase of his ministry, as he starts to teach the disciples about his forthcoming death and the persecution they in turn will face (the main themes of chapter 8 in Mark’s gospel), the words come again. As if to say – don’t stop listening. Now the message is getting hard to hear, hard to accept. Now being one of Jesus’ friends is starting to get controversial, even dangerous – don’t stop listening now.

I’m also struck, every time I read, by the identity of the figures that Jesus is seen speaking with. Before God speaks, Jesus has been seen in conversation with Moses and Elijah.

If you look at the history of the people of God though the Old Testament, I reckon that there are four people who stand out as key figures forming the identity of the people, four names from the Hebrew Scriptures that I suspect were spoken more frequently in the day of Jesus than any others.

The first would be Abraham – the patriarch, the father of the nation, the one from whom all Jews claimed their descent. “We have Abraham as our father”, we hear the people of the day would proclaim – there was even a kids’ song about it, back in the 80’s, I guess – “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham…”

The second is Moses, the one who led the people out of captivity in Egypt, and the one through whom the law was given to the people. Traditionally identified as the author of the Pentateuch, the written code that defined what it meant to be God’s people was named for him – the law of Moses.

And speaking of things named, the third figure would be David, the king whose rule the people looked back to as the highpoint of their history, the kingdom of which they were ever anticipating the return.

And the fourth is Elijah. Now Elijah probably isn’t prophet that we in the Church know best – I’m thinking that would be Isaiah, mostly thanks to the author of Matthew’s gospel, who was dead keen on Isaiah. But Elijah was the stand-out of the prophets in the day of Jesus. When Jesus asked his friends who people said he was, they replied (in part) “Some say Elijah, and others, one of the other prophets”.

Four people; the patriarch, the giver of the law, the king, and the prophet. There ought, perhaps, be a fifth, for what is missing here is the priesthood, the Temple – but no-one stands out as clearly.

And Jesus, here at this crucial moment when his ministry is about to take a dramatic turn, the turn to Jerusalem and the cross, he meets with two of them. And I think that tells us a lot about the reign he came to declare.

Abraham represented the genetic, family and cultural heritage from which the people of Israel arose.

David represented their military success as a nation and their political ambitions.

Moses and Elijah stood for the law and the prophets.

The great tradition of holy and right living laid out in painstaking detail in the law of Moses, and the great tradition of justice heard in the voices of the prophets.

And to strengthen that association, they met on a mountain – for it was on a mountain that Moses met with God to receive the law, and on a mountain that Elijah heard the still small voice of God.

Jesus doesn’t meet with Abraham – for this Kingdom that he has come to proclaim isn’t a matter of birth, isn’t a matter of culture or heredity or descent.

And he doesn’t meet with David, for this Kingdom is not a political structure, or a military force.

And of course, in conversation with Moses and Elijah, with the law and prophets, the voice of God singles out Jesus. “This,” God says, “this is the one you should listen to”.

But there’s one more aspect of the story; that those other mountaintop events, Jesus is not alone. He takes three friends – Peter, James, and John – to be witnesses.

Only Peter gets a speaking part though – good old impulsive Peter – so often the butt of the joke in this story. We’re told he wants to hold onto something transient, wants to take this spiritual experience and build a memorial.

And sure, he missed the point. But as with the story of him sinking when he walked on water, I’d rather focus on what he got right than what he got wrong. He suggests building three tents, dwelling places – actually, the word is ‘tabernacle’; the holy tent that the people constructed before they had a Temple; the place where God dwelt amongst them.

Peter at least had some sense of what this meeting meant. Years later he would write to the early Church,

…we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven…

Peter would hold onto this moment for the rest of his life.

Peter, like many in the early Church, didn’t have an easy life. Put out of the Temple and synagogue, ostracised from the community that had grown within, and eventually killed for his faith, probably in one of Emperor Nero’s bouts of madness. But right to the end, he held onto his faith, and linked it back to this day, this moment.

We sometimes speak of mountaintop experiences in a slightly disparaging way; they are disconnected with the reality of life, overly emotional responses in a rarified setting.

But I think Peter shows us what mountaintop experiences can mean. That there can be a moment in our life in which our experience of God is so strong, so clear, so overwhelming, that it stays with us forever.

So as we start our journey into lent this year I’d like to encourage you to start by looking back. To remember when it has been in your life that you felt anything like this; what the moments were that stay with you, that changed you, that set you on the path you are still walking today.

To remember what it was that you once knew, felt, experienced, of God. Remind yourself; for those things you remember are still with you.